When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?
We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.
This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.
The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.
The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.
Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one – to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.
In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.
It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.
Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ‘male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.